Mental Health Tips
April 8, 2024

What to Do When You Don’t Feel like Doing Anything

Written by
Michelle Lee, LPCC
Reviewed by
Nick Forand, PhD, ABPP
Updated on
Two people walking down a path wearing sneakers and jeans, closeup on their legs and feet

Have you ever noticed that when you’re feeling down — sad, anxious, or overwhelmed — it’s hard to find the motivation to do much? And on the flip side, when you’re in a good mood, you’re more likely to engage with people and activities?

This happens because how we feel can have a big impact on our thoughts and behaviors. That’s why it's common for someone struggling with depression to think there's no point in engaging in the things they normally would enjoy. Fortunately, understanding how thoughts, feelings, and behaviors interact can provide us with some useful insights and helpful strategies.

Graphic showing relationship between behaviors, thoughts, and emotions

In the 1970s a team of researchers at the University of Oregon used this knowledge to develop a technique called behavioral activation — a way of changing your mood by adjusting your behavior in small and simple ways.

What is behavioral activation?

Behavioral activation is both a standalone treatment as well as a component of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is a broad type of treatment that addresses thoughts, patterns, and behaviors that contribute to mental health conditions. Therapists using CBT help their clients learn various skills and techniques to help reduce their symptoms and improve their mental health. Behavioral activation is one of those techniques.

Avoidant behavior

Let’s take someone suffering from depression as an example. Symptoms of depression often include sadness, low energy, and isolation or withdrawal. A person experiencing this may feel like staying in bed, avoiding friends and family, and skipping meals helps them cope.

While this is understandable (and may even feel better in the short term) over time avoidant behavior like this only increases depressive symptoms. The person in our example could end up feeling worse than they did before: more isolated, and stressed or anxious due to falling behind on things like meals, work, and caregiving. 

Soon, a vicious cycle is established: Someone feels bad, so they avoid things that feel difficult in an effort to reduce their pain and suffering. That avoidance brings short-term relief, but is often harmful in the long term, leading to worsening depression, anxiety, and social isolation.

Graphic showing the vicious cycle of inactivity and depression

How behavioral activation works

Say you're feeling sad and lonely. But you recently learned about behavioral activation, and you commit to doing something — even if it's very small — that will help you interrupt the vicious cycle. Rather than retreat to your bedroom, you instead decide to reach out to a friend and make plans to hang out.

This behavior, or activation, results in positive reinforcement: You did something, and felt a little bit better, so you’re likely to do it again. Over time your depressive symptoms become less severe — you have more energy, feel less sad, and are therefore more likely to engage in things that are meaningful to you. You’re also likely to feel more connected to people around you, which helps you build a network of support.

Graphic showing how behavioral activation works to improve mood

It’s important to note that although behavioral activation may seem simple, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to do. Because a lack of energy and motivation is behind the need for behavioral activation in the first place, people often need to get creative: This can include creating a schedule that includes helpful activities, proactively solving for anything that may get in the way, and setting up accountability with a therapist or family member. Finally, observing how you feel after the activation is important — it helps you understand how the activation helped you, so you’re more likely to continue doing it. 

How behavioral activation can help you

By simply learning about behavioral activation, you have an important new skill: the ability to notice the relationship between a low mood and lack of motivation to engage in everyday activities. 

Behavioral activation is most effective when the activities are tied to your personal values: 

  • If you're feeling lonely and isolated, try reaching out to a supportive family member or friend. 
  • Try to schedule time during the week to pursue hobbies or interests, or other activities that you enjoy.
  • If you tend to procrastinate, set yourself a timer and work on a task you've been avoiding for a few minutes. 
  • If you’d like to improve your health, find ways to move your body during the day. Go for a short walk or do some gentle stretches.
  • If you’re passionate about helping others, look for volunteer opportunities in your community.

The more applicable behavioral activation is to your own life and interests, the better it will work for you.

Behavioral activation is proven to help with conditions like depression. You can try it out if you’re feeling down, and see if it helps you. However, if you’ve been struggling for several weeks, or struggling with things that are important to you like work, family, or your health, more support from a therapist may be needed.

At Two Chairs, our team of therapists has decades of experience helping people with depression and many other conditions. Start treatment today by booking an appointment online to get connected with the right therapist for you.

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